French Cycling Federation hope to reach for the Sky
Without a Tour de France winner since 1985, France believe new Paris velodrome can spark British levels of success
Thursday 20 March 2014
Imitation is, they say, the sincerest form of flattery. Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome's recent Tour de France victories were hardly met with universal acclaim by their hosts, but the structure behind them at Team Sky has long drawn admiring glances from across the Channel.
The French Cycling Federation president, David Lappartient, first articulated those feelings publicly in February last year, when he spoke of his desire to create a "Team Sky à la française," maintaining that following the Sky model – a professional road team built upon foundations laid by British Cycling's track success – could restore France's standing in the cycling world.
It is now, after all, almost three decades since the last French Tour winner – Bernard Hinault in 1985 – and the scorecard in other major races is scarcely better.
Next week's Volta a Catalunya, for instance – where Sky will be rolling out the big guns in Froome, Wiggins and Richie Porte as they plot their latest season of major achievement – last had a French victor in 1995.
The catalyst for recent British success was the construction of the Manchester Velodrome in 1994, and it is no coincidence that the French federation formally presented its project the day after inaugurating the new track in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in January. Remarkably, it is the first full-sized, indoor velodrome to be built in the Paris area for over half a century.
Matching Sky's success is the aim, but the French federation has already outstripped its ambition by planning to field men's and women's professional teams in five disciplines – road, track, cyclo-cross, mountain biking and BMX. Where Sky's stated goal was to produce a British Tour de France winner within five years, the FFC's remit is a broader one. "The main objective is to win the Tour with French riders, but the Olympic Games are also an aim, which is different to other projects," said managing director Olivier Quéguiner.
An inclination to champion tradition over innovation has often been cited as an explanation for French cycling's regression since the 1980s. Former Sky rider Mathew Hayman believes that the current trend of professional teams with links to national federations, is less about flying the flag than applying new ideas to a somewhat conservative field. "When I first came to Europe, it was like stepping back in time. Cycling's a traditional sport and people just followed what had been done before," said Hayman, now with the Australian equivalent of Sky, Orica-GreenEdge. "These new teams are about taking advantage of scientific approaches from track cycling and other sports."
That cultural change has already taken hold at grassroots level in France, resulting in a steady stream of youth world titles in the past decade, while the current crop of young French professionals, led by Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil, has been hailed as a new golden generation.
"Our British neighbours have done things worth taking into consideration but we're not doing badly ourselves when it comes to producing young riders," said Sylvain Chavanel, France's top-ranked rider last year. "My worry is that we're not producing good time triallists. Until we do that, we won't have another Tour winner."
The multi-disciplinary approach of the proposed French team could provide a remedy to that problem – Wiggins' transition from track star to Tour champion is an encouraging template – but replicating the British model will prove difficult without the requisite finances.
Whereas Sky Television's association with the British track programme – already supported by lottery funding – segued neatly into its sponsorship of the professional road team, the French federation has no such backer waiting in the wings. Aided by the SportFive agency, the FFC is still looking for a commercial partner to contribute €20m (£16.6m) of a Sky-sized €25m (£21m) annual budget, but time is running out to put a deal together for next year, and a 2016 start is perhaps more feasible.
"Right now we don't have the same money as Britain to develop material: they leave nothing to chance," said François Pervis, who won three gold medals at the recent track world championships yet still expects Great Britain to dominate at the Rio Olympics.
Pervis and his track comrades may have christened the new Paris Velodrome by beating Great Britain in an exhibition match, but there is an acknowledgement in France that overhauling Team Sky and British Cycling on road and track will be a marathon rather than a sprint, and a commercial endeavour as much as a sporting one.
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